The Los Angeles School District (LASD) has settled 81 students’ claims against it for their sexual abuse by teacher Mark Berndt. The $139 million settlement comes after a $30 million settlement of a case brought against the LASD by 65 students for sexual abuse by the same teacher.
Mark Berndt, a 3rd Grade teacher at Miramonte Elementary School, allegedly abused children for 30 years, as the District supposedly studiously ignored complaints and warning signs. Plaintiffs’ attorneys rejected earlier settlement offers because they wanted to find out what happened, a difficult task because many records were destroyed by the District. In addition, most of the students at Miramonte are underprivileged Hispanic children whose parents are supposedly so respectful of teachers that they are reluctant to criticize them. Despite those obstacles, the attorneys discovered many incidents, including: teachers reporting that Berndt exposed himself to students in the mid-1990s; some girls complaining that Berndt was masturbating in class in the early 1990s; and a parent complaining that Berndt dropped his shorts during a field trip. In none of those cases was Berndt removed from the classroom or prosecuted.
The break finally came when a 19-year-old female employee of CVS Pharmacy who had been employed for less than a month. Berndt dropped off pictures that were developed by CVS and showed him feeding an unknown substance to students from spoons and cookies. The employee discovered that CVS had been developing similar pictures for Berndt since 2005. Suspicious, the employee wanted to contact police but was told by her supervisors not to do so. She called the policy anyway. Investigators discovered that the strange substance being fed by Berndt to students was his own semen.
Berndt pleaded no contest to 23 counts of lewd conduct and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. However, he avoided being fired and was able to retire with his teaching pension.
The District representative stated that in reaching the most recent settlement, a balance was struck between sparing the Miramonte community the anguish of a protracted trial and bearing the financial consequences of a settlement. At least one independent expert believes the District actually struck the large settlement – averaging $1.7 million per plaintiff – because it feared faring far worse in a trial.
The dollars-and-cents determination of payouts to each plaintiff will be handled by a retired judge appointed to evaluate each claim, depending on the nature, duration and impact of the abuse on each plaintiff.
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